Airport Closure Could Be Dragged on Until Dec 2

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November 29, 2008

8:45 PM: How can the police practically remove more than, say, 50,000 anti-government protesters out of the Suvarnabhumi Airport? The answer is impossible. In the morning the crowd was estimated at 30,000. But right now it has ballooned to more than 50,000, with the protesters spilling into the check-in areas.

First, the police do not have enough manpower. Second, the police do not have the expertise to handle a large mob of this kind. Third, the protesters are in a better location than the police because they can always run for shelter inside the vast terminal.

To evict the protesters out of the airport, the police need to outnumber them. It is not easy to mobilise a huge police force to counter the protesters. This is the very first handicap.

Somchai Wongsawat, the prime minister, no longer trusts the military, so he has assigned the police to handle the task of quashing the protesters out of the airport. His relationship with the military is now broken for good. Somchai does not dare to fly on an Air Force aircraft any longer.

The Suvarnabhumi closure is now causing more than 500,000 passengers to get stuck in Bangkok.  

But none of the police has the expertise to do the job. Pol Gen Kowit Wattana, the interior minister, will have to exercise more prudence this time. In the October 7 incident, the police started to shoot tear gas into the anti-government protesters in front of Parliament without following any procedures. This resulted in one death and hundreds of injuries.

Since Kowit spent most of his career in the Police Border Patrol, he did not have the experience to handle riots in a big city like Bangkok. The Metropolitan Police Command Centre and another police unit, both headed by friends of Thaksin Shinawatra, tasked to handle the protesters at the airport are equally ill-equipped and have no experience.

To disperse a huge mob, the police normally needs a special command armoured vehicle. The last time the police had this special command armoured vehicle was in the early 1970s, purchased during the time of Police Chief Prasert Rujirawong. The special command armoured vehicle, which looked like a tank, was bought for Bt12 million. It had to be used with fire trucks to spray water canon against the crowd.

The vehicle was use to disperse the student demonstrations during the October 1973 uprising. The students were not afraid to die. They lay on the streets. The driver of this special command armoured vehicle dared not run over the students. It parked like a dead tree with the students surrounding it.

After 12 hours of engine humming, the airconditioner no longer worked. The police officers inside had to escape from the vehicle. The students did not hesitate to burn it down. The police afterward sold the vehicle as a piece of iron junk.

The Thai police forces have never got proper training on how to handle the riots and mob protests. After the October 7 incident, the police now are more obliged to follow the textbook. First they have to use a loud speaker to inform the crowd to disperse. A timing is given. Second, they will move in to quash the protesters by using water canons. Third, they might use tear gas to disperse the crowd and drag them out.

But the Suvarnabhumi Airport is not Sanam Luang. The police can’t use fire trucks to spray water into the crowd. It is practically impossible to use water canons at the airport. The protesters can always run into the terminal or stay in different rooms. If the police were to fire tear gas, the protesters can also seek shelter in the rooms or other places.

It would be a big cat-and-mouse fiasco.

After a series of issuing threats, the government has to bite the bullet. Since the government does not want to use the service of the military to quash the protesters, Gen Anupong Paochinda can only say thank you. The military now let the government and the protesters confront each other. The military is now an idle bystander. The equation has changed. When the protesters stormed the airport, they forced the military and the government to confront each other. Now it is no longer the case.

Coup rumours were reached feverish height on Thursday over speculation that the army chief could be sacked. The military were in full alert, ready to take the action.

Later on, the rumours died down. The government decided to sack Pol Chief Patcharawat Wongsuwan alone.

Now the chance of a military coup has disappeared. But if the airport crisis cannot be resolved after Dec 5, then a coup would have to happen inevitably. Somchai is still staying in Chiang Mai.

The military is now focusing on rehearsing a military parade as part of a celebration of His Majesty the King’s Birthday. On December 2, all the armed forces will take part in the annual military parade at the Royal Plaza. Their Majesties the King and the Queen also take part in the parade to review the guard of honour.

But on the same day of Dec 2, the Constitution Court will conclude hearings into the party dissolution cases against the People Power Party, the Chat Thai and the Matchima Thipatai Party. It is not sure whether the court will issue the verdicts on the same day.

Even after the expected dissolution of the People Power Party, Somchai and his Cabinet would still carry on as caretaker government. The MPs would migrate to other parties. But Parliament will function as normal.

The Military are now giving time for the government and the protesters time to sort things out. So we should see something on Dec 2. If after Dec 5, they cannot reach any compromise, the Military would have to step in to clean up the mess. It would be messy, messy, messy.

Thanong Khanthong

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